Dear Rachel,

I live in Israel and just received the news that my grandmother (in the US) is extremely ill and has only a short time left to live. I am planning to fly out ASAP so I can spend 10 days with her. My husband is very supportive of my trip, and while I know it is the right thing to do, I am nervous about being away from my kids for so long (I've never been away from them for more than a night), and about introducing the concept of death to their young, innocent lives... Any thoughts or suggestions on this matter would be very welcome.

Thank you,
Ruth, Israel

Dear Ruth,

I am so sorry to hear of the struggle you and your family are going through. The subject of death and dying is not an easy one to deal with at any age, and can be a particular challenge to present to children. However, it is important to remember that a child’s intellect is not nearly as developed as an adult’s, and therefore, they have a unique ability to connect with new concepts in a very pure, unfiltered manner and on a more emotional - even spiritual - level.

In Judaism, we view life as 2-dimensional; we have a body and we have a soul. The body is physical and finite, whereas the soul is a spiritual creation and is eternal to its core. The Chassidic Masters explain that the soul is an “actual piece of G‑d”, and thus, is inextinguishable. This is the part of a person that never goes away. Likewise, it is the soul that animates the body and allows a person to accomplish great things and make a positive impact in this world. The good deeds and memories one leaves behind will remain even long after the body fades.

Visiting your grandmother at this crucial time is not only fulfilling the very powerful Torah commandment of visiting the sick, but it will bring your grandmother and family much comfort during this difficult time. It also has a tremendous potential to be transforming and meaningful as you experience this time with her.

Allowing your children to learn from your deeds is the truest and most valuable way to impart a lesson. By allowing them the opportunity to “let you go” to accomplish this very important mitzvah of being a support and help to your grandmother, you are including them as participants in this experience. Any practical ways you can find to involve them in her life at this precious time will not only be very meaningful for your grandmother, but to your children as well.

Video-taping the kids, taking pictures of them with home-made signs, having them make cards, pictures and decorations for her room, and encouraging them to pray for her well-being are all beautiful ways to “bring them with you” on your visit.

In terms of you being away from the kids, I would consider introducing the concept of your leaving slowly. First you can discuss that your grandmother is very sick and needs a lot of help. You can mention that there is a special mitzvah called bikur cholim (visiting the sick). Some mitzvot that we have are pretty easy to do while others are much harder, but, easy or hard, we still have to do them. That is what being a good person is all about - doing the right thing - even when it is really difficult for us.

You may not want to mention your actual departure until a day or two before you fly, to try to keep their anxiety to a minimum. But when you feel the time is right, you can mention that great-grandmother has gotten sicker, and Mommy needs to be with her for a little while to help out in any way she can. Then you can re-iterate the concepts that you introduced earlier about the mitzvah of “visiting the sick” and “doing the right thing” - even if it’s hard.

Before you go, you might consider making a "Count The Days Until Mommy gets Home” sticker chart, or something of the sort, so they can have a clearer understanding of when you will be returning.

This is not an easy issue you are dealing with, but I am pleased to hear about the choices you have made. You have chosen to do the “right thing” by making a big effort to spend time with your grandmother, and that is not only admirable, but a beautiful life lesson to impart to your children. I hope that your time together is meaningful and joyful and fulfilling in many ways. May you merit to bring your grandmother much comfort. With blessings for a good, healthy and sweet new year for you and your family.